KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — In honor of Black History month, we take you back in time to the Civil War era in Knoxville to learn about our city’s first black police officer and Knoxville City Alderman who also served as watchman over the U.S. Custom House, now home to the East Tennessee History Center.
Moses Smith didn’t just break barriers, he worked around them to create his own path.
It’s hard to make out the weathered epitaph on his tombstone at Odd Fellows Cemetery in East Knoxville.
Smith’s grave is one of 6,000 in one of our city’s first dedicated African American burial grounds.
In his short lifetime, he was singled out for his honesty, bravery, and leadership.
We traced the steps of Moses Smith when he was a watchman at the U.S. Custom House and Post Office, now the East Tennessee History Center with a woman who has studied him extensively. Danette Welch is a reference assistant with the Calvin McClung Historical Collection.
“At the end of the war, ” she said, “there’s a lot of tumult, there’s a decision: Knoxville is one of the first four cities in the south that will have policemen of color.”
Before his ultimate job as watchman over the courtroom at the Custom House, Moses Smith had already achieved some other “firsts.”
“He was one of the first men who comes out to join the first U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery when it’s organized in Knoxville,” Welch told us.
She added, “he’s quickly one of the first corporals within just a few days. A special order comes out; they’ve seen his ability; he can be a corporal.”
Smith went on to achieve the rank of sergeant, the highest rank a black man could attain in his military group.
“He just has some sort of ability,” Welch said, “people trust him, they’ll follow him.”
Guarding the building was an important job in a day when post office robberies were rampant. Moses Smith was ready to protect and serve.
Sadly, there is no known photograph of him, but Welch believes one exists somewhere.
“We don’t have an identified photographic image of Moses Smith or of his wife,” Welch said. “pictures survive with some of the family. Is just because nothing that old survived? Did they lose them in moves? Was there a fire? He seems like a man who would have had his image taken. He would have wanted that!”
Going back to his final resting place, we share another moment marking a life well-lived.
“Governor-elect Robert Taylor was a pallbearer at Smith’s funeral,” Welch said.
The Custom House and its federal offices were closed in observance of the passing of Moses Smith.
Smith died of an apparent heart attack while on the job.
A job he loved, by all accounts… and worked hard to get, lobbying city aldermen to keep his salary as a police officer while taking on the duties of a regular watchman.
Newspapers at the time described him as Knoxville’s most beloved and respected black person. An important figure in Knoxville’s history.
Positively Tennessee airs on WATE 6 news each Friday.